Teaching the romance
Professor Jessie Matthews teaches an undergraduate literature course on romance novels at George Mason University. Despite some student and faculty skepticism, the class fills quickly and students come away from it with a greater appreciation of the depth romance novels can reveal when looked at critically and analytically.
How do you teach popular romance?
I teach a course called “Why Women Read Romance.” It’s a 200-level, general education literature course that focuses solely on the romance novel. And I chose to teach it because, well, I had an interest in the romance novel and I felt that it would make a great course for students. I know that it’s a popular genre and I thought that maybe students might be more interested in reading literature if the genre were one that might entice them to take the course.
So I had my own personal interest and I certainly had a sort of secondary motive, which was to make sure the class filled. It did fill; it filled within about two days after it was offered. I’m in the third time teaching it and it still fills very quickly. That doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s popular. I think that there’s plenty of students who enroll in that course because they hear “romance novel” and they think cheesy, cheesy books, easy course. So part of my job is to try to persuade them otherwise. And the reading list and the focus on close reading, the focus on studying literature in context, that helps dispel that notion that romance novels are all cheesy, and obviously, make an easy course.
So that was why I decided to teach the course. I called it “Why Women Read Romance” because for me it was the most compelling question. It’s a genre written primarily by women and read primarily by women, but the sales are so astounding, it is such a big seller in the publishing industry that I just wondered—I mean, it was kind of like my research question—why do women read romance, and read so many romances, and have been doing so for a long time? [. . .]
[. . .] But I do think there is enough evidence to suggest that women read romance as a—to gain some sense of female empowerment. I’m in the female empowerment camp about romance novels. I find them incredibly powerful for women to read.
How do romance novels empower women?
First of all, they’re courtship stories. And courtship stories have to show some conflict between the hero and heroine in order for them to be interesting and worth reading. Lots of times that conflict focuses on a “man’s man,” a man who is a man, the “devil-hero”—he’s big, he’s powerful, there’s usually something dangerous about him. So he’s a sturdy opponent, a Goliath if you will, for the heroine—who is often smaller and obviously physically weaker, but she’s usually his equal or his better in terms of wits and courage. And her battle is to tame him, to outsmart him, and by the end of the novel create this integrated, healthy couple. And you can imagine how empowering that is for women to see that unfold in a narrative. In their real lives I don’t know that women always enter into relations with men that are unequal and always emerge victorious, where in a romance novel they do.